Last year, our leadership team struggled to have positive data meetings. We presented attendance data, passing rates, and student feedback. We asked for teacher input. We restructured and rethought and tried multiple formats. The principal, the counselor, the department heads, and I (the instructional coach) did the best we could. And we failed.
No matter what we did, the data meetings always devolved into complaints about specific students or bothersome behaviors. We were never able to focus the conversation so we were proactively thinking about what caused problematic behaviors. Our focus never wound up where we wanted it: on what interventions or strategies we could try.
It was frustrating, demoralizing, and upsetting. Staff reported leaving the data meetings feeling worse about teaching at the school. Many felt data meetings were a waste of time. Others wanted to know what someone else was going to do to address the problems they repeatedly rehashed.
Over the summer, the leadership team decided to try a different approach. We sought ways to ensure teachers felt ownership over the process. Unlike traditional RTI and other data meeting strategies, we didn’t want to dictate the interventions. We wanted teachers to share their best ideas and commit to trying new things.
When we started this conversation, I can admit I was pretty defeatist about the whole process. Everything we tried last year bombed catastrophically. Eventually, we decided to ask the teachers to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of our students.
They were strategically grouped (because, you know, teachers) and given markers and poster paper. There was only one rule: the number of strengths and weaknesses needed to be similar. So, 6 strengths and 7 weaknesses was acceptable, 6 strengths and 17 (or 70) weaknesses…not so much.
To my surprise, the teachers reveled in this exercise. Those who contributed negatives were prompted by their peers to find the corollary positives. Teachers engaged in discussions about why they identified certain traits and argued over whether a specific trait, like chattiness, was a weakness or a strength and a weakness. Some teachers provided examples while others dissected them like some crazed biology experiment.
We gave the teachers a time limit of just 15 minutes. I believe the short time period helped teachers stay focused and feel a sense of urgency. When the time was up, each group presented their lists to the whole room. Teachers asked questions, made comments, pointed out connections, found similarities, etc.
After a little more reflection, we recognized a need to shift the focus from students to teachers. We repeated the strengths and weaknesses exercise. This time teacher identified their own collective strengths and weaknesses. Once again, the discussions impressed me because teachers were honest to the point of vulnerability and accepted that we all have weaknesses.
Then the real magic began. As a leadership team, we collected both sets of the posters and hung them in the office. Those posters now guide the planning for our weekly data meetings. As a team, we sit down and look at the lists. We select one or two strengths and one or two complementary weaknesses for the meeting that week. Our selection process is based on what we believe staff and students need. For example, nearing exams, we selected motivation and self-advocacy as strengths with lack of academic confidence and poor self-regulation as related weaknesses for students. For teachers, we focused on organization and high expectations as strengths and anxiety and exhaustion as weaknesses.
At each meeting we present these traits to the staff with a reminder of the work they did. We then ask them to form groups and discuss how we see these traits manifested in student and teacher behavior using these guiding questions:
“What do we see? How do these qualities manifest in student-teacher interactions?”
“How do these behaviors support or interfere with student success?”
Once groups have completed their brainstorm, they share with the room.
Next, we ask teachers to reflect on how they typically react or want to react to these behaviors. It is important to note that we ask teachers to be honest about their emotional reactions and not just share what they believe they should do. When someone interrupts me to ask a question I have already answered, my gut reaction is irritation. I work hard not to respond with irritation, but that is still my natural tendency.
As the discussion progresses, we add another dimension and ask:
“What could we do when we interact with students displaying specific behaviors to achieve a positive outcome?
“What could we do to monitor and adjust to minimize our weaknesses and maximize our strengths?“
Teachers share strategies they have tried that worked or that failed. They ask clarifying questions and share uncertainties.
The final step of the process requires teachers to shift to solution mode. We ask them:
“What strategies or phrases can we ALL try in the next week?”
Instead of dictating action, we ask the teachers to generate a list of possible strategies and then come to consensus on one or two they will try to use, or use more often/intentionally, over the next week.
After the first data meeting, each meeting starts the same way: with a reflection on the previous work. Teachers track their use of the selected strategies and the results in whatever way works for them. As long as they bring back concrete data to report, we aren’t worried about forms or formulas. We also don’t collect gobs of numerical data–maybe we will someday, but for now, doing the work is more valuable than documenting it.
To help teachers reflect, we ask:
- What worked?
- What didn’t?
- What changes, if any, did you see in students attitudes/behaviors?
- What will you continue to do or what do you want to try next?
The results…so far
The results have been extremely encouraging. There are still complaints and accountability issues. Teachers would still rather not meet at all. But. I hear far less grumbling about our data meetings. The reports of feeling worse after a meeting have stopped. As have the rather desperate excuses to get out of attending.
Instead, I hear teachers talking about the traits and strategies we discuss in the halls and at lunch. I see teachers trying and keeping new strategies. Teachers are reflecting more around their own behaviors has visibly increased. Best of all, the school’s atmosphere, its culture, feels calmer and less adversarial. Students are being sent out of class less frequently. Teachers are escalating confrontations more rarely. The data is slowly reflecting the changes we can all feel.
Everyone is finally engaged in the work of helping students help themselves.